Chief Justice addresses judicial budget crisis

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(Host) The chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court says the delivery of justice in the state is being compromised by budget cuts and an outdated court system.

Chief Justice Paul Reiber urged lawmakers to address the concerns in a timely manner. He made his comments in a rare address to a joint assembly of the Legislature.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) Statehouse observers say it’s been 20 years since a chief justice has delivered this kind of speech at the Statehouse.

Reiber made it clear that he believes the Vermont Judiciary faces two critical problems – a lack of proper funding and an inflexible court system that was put into place more than a hundred years ago. He says this system makes it very difficult for judges to make administrative changes in tight budget times:

(Rieber) "In some ways it serves us well. But in other respects our court system is like the one room schoolhouses that once dotted Vermont’s countryside…our present inability to change that structure without legislative action means that we the Judiciary cannot respond to balance the harsh realities if declining revenues with the constitutional imperatives that define us as a state. This rigid structure and its limitation on change, is of great concern to me."

Reiber says he envisions a court system that has the flexibility to deal with a variety of duties. He questions why every county should have a district court and he thinks the Judiciary should have greater control over its budget. Reiber says he has great concerns if these changes aren’t made:

(Reiber) "If we don’t accomplish some greater measure of stability in this system than exists now, if funding levels continue to decline before our flexibility to manage the budget is improved, we will have to choose one bad option over another. The paradox is that unless we find short term stability to fix long term problems, the court’s central purpose, applying the laws that you pass, will be compromised."

Reiber says he’s also concerned that recent budget cuts are affecting the disposition of cases in family court:

(Reiber) "Court delays caused by disruption of services due to erratic funding and an inability to match our resources to those cases, is a burden we should see no child forced to bear. The family court is in an a very real sense the voice of state government that speaks to children and to families in troubled circumstances."

Senate Judiciary chairman Dick Sears says he supports Rieber’s call for reform because Sears believes that justice is being compromised in some parts of Vermont at this time:

(Sears) "I think this was an historic moment when the chief justice comes before the Legislature saying hey we are a separate branch of government and we need to be treated as such but I think that we need to look at how we can best deliver justice in this state."

A special blue ribbon commission is currently looking at ways to streamline the state’s judicial system.

The commission is expected to issue a report in several months and then the panel will hold public hearings on the plan this summer.

Reiber is hoping that lawmakers will adopt the commission’s recommendations next winter.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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